Pope Francis donates watch to local foundation

By Nancy Barthel | For The Compass | November 30, 2021

With Bishop Ricken’s assistance, watch will help raise funds for LaViolette Scholarship Foundation

Pope Francis is seen wearing the Swatch watch, which he has donated to the Brian LaViolette Scholarship Foundation’s “Once Upon a Time Collection” capital campaign fundraiser. A letter, signed by Fr. Fabio Salerno, the pope’s personal secretary, is also pictured. (Nancy Barthel | For The Compass)

GREEN BAY — A dream that Doug LaViolette had for well over a year — something he said a few friends told him was “crazy” — has indeed come true.

At a press conference on Nov. 23 at Nicolet Bank in downtown Green Bay, LaViolette announced that the Brian LaViolette Scholarship Foundation has received a watch from Pope Francis for its “Once Upon a Time Collection,” a watch collection which will be auctioned off online in 2022 in time with the foundation’s 30th anniversary.

All the watches “will have been owned and worn by an individual who has made a difference in the world,” according to the foundation. Further details on the auction will be released on Feb. 2, 2022 — or as the foundation states, on “2.22.22.”

The foundation was established to honor the life of Brian LaViolette, a De Pere High School student who, on Aug. 8, 1992, at age 15, died in a drowning accident off Chambers Island in Door County. His family promised the day of his funeral that “great things” would be accomplished in his name and memory.

Since then, over 1,000 local, national and international scholarships have been awarded. In an interview with The Compass prior to the press conference, LaViolette, who is foundation president, noted, “Seventy-five percent of all Brian’s scholarships honor someone else.”

The foundation is also renowned for its support of the military and the reason why is easily explained, he said: the day Brian died a letter had arrived in the mail inviting him to visit the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The pope’s watch donation — which was set seven hours ahead to Rome time for the press conference — also came with a photo of Pope Francis wearing the Swatch watch and a letter signed by Fr. Fabio Salerno, the pope’s personal secretary.

It reads: “On behalf of the Holy Father, I am pleased to send you, here enclosed, a watch belonging to him for the Brian LaViolette Scholarship Foundation.

“Pope Francis assures a remembrance for the soul of Brian in his prayers and imparts you, the family LaViolette and the members of the Foundation his Apostolic Blessings, as a pledge of peace in the Lord.”

The casual Swatch watch was first introduced in Switzerland in the 1980s. The brand’s name is a contraction of “second watch.”

“We talk about the importance of time. But he’s so simplistic,” said LaViolette of Pope Francis. “Many material things are not important to him, from what we can tell, and his wrist watch reflects that. It’s a very simple design and I think that, in itself, is so telling of him as an individual. He’s just such an extraordinary human being that has such simple taste.” LaViolette and his wife, Renee, are members of First United Methodist Church in Green Bay.

Michael and Rocky Calawerts, members of St. John the Evangelist and St. Agnes parishes, Green Bay, are co-chairs of the $1.5 million capital campaign which is designed to secure the foundation for generations to come. Michael Calawerts is a board member for the Catholic Foundation for the Diocese of Green Bay Inc. and also owner of Pella Windows & Doors in Green Bay.

“It was a year ago that I called the bishop (Bishop David Ricken) about his watch request, and I know, because it was Thanksgiving,” said Calawerts in an interview with The Compass following the press conference.

Calawerts said he and his wife were drawn to co-chair the capital campaign because it was on Aug. 8, 1992, when they learned the “incredible news” they would adopt their first child, Lucas, on the same day the LaViolettes lost their son. “We have a connection,” he said.

Bishop Ricken would ultimately make the formal request of Pope Francis for the watch donation. “He views himself as being the shepherd of everyone in this community,” no matter their faith, said Calawerts of Bishop Ricken. “It’s community and it’s everybody helping each other. When you leave Green Bay and come back to Green Bay, it’s a pretty special place. It’s a small town and people still talk to each other and care for each other.”

The process leading to the formal request from Pope Francis actually began with an Episcopal priest in Rome.

That priest, Rev. Austin Rios, rector of St. Paul’s Within the Walls Church in Rome, was the best friend of Brian and was with him and two other friends the day Brian died.

The two first met when Rev. Rios moved as a boy with his family from Texas to De Pere.

“We basically did everything together,” he said, speaking remotely from Rome during the press conference. “I always resonated with Brian, because he was never afraid of the deeper questions, and I (wasn’t), too. We connected on that level.”

On Aug. 8, 1992, “I got to share a really meaningful conversation with him, not knowing it would be his last one on earth. … Our conversation was all about what we wanted to be when we grew up,” he said.

Rev. Rios — who was the third recipient of a scholarship from the foundation and has lived in Rome for 10 years — was “so significant in opening the gates to the Vatican originally,” said LaViolette during the press conference.

Rev. Rios said he has met Pope Francis several times. “This is a project that resonates with anyone who has a heart,” and Pope Franics does, he said. “I praise God for that.”

“The Holy Father receives lots of requests,” he continued, but he knew the story was compelling. Doors at the Vatican started to open for the watch request, but, “The best way to have this be a successful task was through (Bishop Ricken). … That was really a wonderful offering on his part and a gift to see that come about.”

In a letter dated May 28, 2021, from Bishop Ricken to Pope Francis, the bishop wrote, in part: “I write today to share a very special request with you on behalf of the family of Brian LaViolette, who reside in the Diocese of Green Bay. … Your Holiness, on behalf of the family, I humbly ask if you might consider offering an inexpensive watch you have worn prior, that you may feel inclined to part with for this specific cause.”

In a statement provided for the press conference, Bishop Ricken said the following about the watch donation by Pope Francis:

“Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, is a man of great generosity. I suspect when he heard the story of this unique watch collection being assembled to continue the legacy of providing yearly scholarships, it truly touched his heart. Knowing that the foundation was established by the LaViolette family following the tragic loss of their beloved son Brian, only made the request more compelling. I am blessed to have played a small role in the facilitation of this donation and pray for a successful outcome to the auction.”

Why was the “Once Upon a Time Collection” selected for the foundation’s capital campaign?

Brian was fascinated by time, said LaViolette, who wears one of his son’s watches each day. At age 4, he received his first watch and, by age 15, he owned seven, most of which he purchased with his savings, his father said.

In addition to the pope’s watch, the foundation has already acquired watches that were worn by Green Bay Packers and pro football Hall of Fame kicker Jan Stenerud, Medal of Honor recipient Sal Giunta, comedian and philanthropist Jerry Lewis, actor and Korean War Silver Star recipient James McEachin, actress Priscilla Presley, Gen. George Patton‘s grandson George Patton Waters, and Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient Sgt. Donald Jakeway who parachuted into Normandy, France, on D-Day June 6, 1944.

“Nothing will ever bring Brian back,” he said, “but every single year during award ceremonies around the world, a little piece of him goes with these scholarship recipients, and the important thing is it’s not just Brian, but it’s all these individuals. We honor their memory and, in a lot of cases, their heroic memory,” LaViolette told The Compass.

“We’ve awarded scholarships to every imaginable faith and everybody worldwide,” he continued, from a young woman in South Africa to someone entering the Air Force Academy, “and everything in between.”

LaViolette is thankful for Pope Francis’ donation, noting, “Well, obviously, he’s the leader of the Catholic Church, but, more importantly, he’s just a profound leader of mankind. … I think it starts with kindness and understanding. He gets it. You know, he’s so compassionate with everyone he talks to.”

“They both care about mankind,” said LaViolette of Pope Francis and Bishop Ricken. “I think that’s such a beautiful thing.”

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